Still Looking for Judy: One Woman’s Quest to Find Her Missing Sister

Judy O’Donnell, Christmas 1979, Family Photo

Time After Time

There are flowers scattered down the steep 30-foot bank where Princess Doe was found by maintenance workers of the Cedar Ridge Cemetery in the rural community of Blairstown, tossed down by various strangers who still remember the girl who, for decades, has remained nameless. It’s been 29 years this July.

Just a few yards away she is buried. Her headstone, paid for by local members of the community at the time, reads “Princess Doe, Missing from Home, Dead among strangers, Remembered by All, Born ? – Found July 15, 1982.”

“She was found beaten beyond recognition,” says Tony Evelina, New York area director of the Doe Network, a volunteer organization that tracks missing persons cases. “[Police] believe she was from Long Island but they have no way of proving it.”

Blairstown police said she had extensive dental work, indicating she probably belonged to an upper middle class family, and was most likely a runaway and prostitute from the New York area, according to her case file. But no one ever came forward claiming her and the case gradually faded from the media.

“For awhile her case was getting good attention,” says Evelina. “Maybe when the anniversary comes up they’ll throw a little article up.”

Maureen came across a website, where people were suggesting possible matches for Princess Doe. Judith Erin O’Donnell was listed as one of them.

It looked like a promising possibility until, once again, dental records cleared Judy as a match.

But over the years, Maureen hasn’t let the misses slow her down and has never excluded any possible scenario, even that her sister had merely decided to create a new life for herself somewhere else.

“I would sit on hotel phones and use these phone cards and call and call and call anybody with any name,” she says. “Anybody with anything that could possibly have anything to do with Judy I would just get on the phone and call.”

And it looked like all that work was starting to pay off. Even if only by process of elimination, Judy was getting closer. And then, a possible breakthrough.

In 2003, when construction workers were breaking up a block of concrete in the basement of an abandoned Hell’s Kitchen building they hit something—a rolled up red carpet from the ’80s. Inside was the skeleton of a young woman, her neck and limbs wrapped by an electrical cord, according to her case file. The story wasn’t heavily reported by the media outside of the immediate area.

The 46th Street tenement was a known hangout for prostitutes in the early ’80s—and within blocks of Judy’s old stomping grounds. Today, it is still abandoned with cinder blocks and broken wood panels covering the windows—and bars over the ones leading to the basement.

A composite sketch of what the woman could have looked like was distributed by police after she was found. But that sketch didn’t make it out of the immediate New York City area either at the time. Maureen saw it for the first time last week. It looks like Judy.

And again, all the pegs start lining up: The woman, like Judy, also had expensive dental work that appeared to have abruptly stopped. Police also believed her to have been a prostitute because of the type of clothing found with her body–all similarities Maureen has seen before.

But there’s one more detail that makes this latest case different—a gold-plated signet ring found on the victim’s right pinky with the initials PMcG carved on the face.

They are a far cry from Judy’s initials: JOD, but they are the exact initials of her grandmother, Phyllis McGrorty, who Maureen says Judy had been extremely close to. And Maureen believes the ring could have been given to Judy by her grandmother.

But for all the similarities, there are still no answers. Investigators, who say they will compare the dental records of the two women, have not yet returned calls from either Maureen or the Press. And in the mean time, Maureen holds out a strange kind of hope—the hope that she could finally have the answers she has so desperately been seeking and the hope that it’s not her sister that’s been in that basement for 30 years.

“There’s this desperation…that we may never know,” says Maureen. “I hate to think that this is what happened to her.”

And unfortunately, finding answers takes time. Investigator Thomas Hughes, of the New York State Police, is working on a similar cold case to the Midtown Jane Doe—the body of an unidentified young man, unnoticed for 26 years on the Northern State Parkway, found by an out of control driver in 1997—and says working on a decades-old old case comes with a unique set of challenges.

“There’s no identification, there’s no skin to fingerprint, there’s no way to tell if he had any tattoos, no way to tell if he’s had any scars or been stabbed or had any operations,” Hughes tells the Press. “We can’t step forward in the case because we have to know who he is, and then we can say, ‘Okay, who was he last…26 years ago, who was with him?’”

And if it is hard for investigators to get answers, it’s even harder being a member of the general public, and trying to find them—but not impossible.

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